Wednesday, 29 June 2011

looking back

I can't quite believe I've been home for 6 months, it is definitely time I wrote this entry and there is so much I want to say.

Blogging, whilst doing a VSO placement is fraught with danger. You never know who is going to read your blog and working for VSO mostly involves trying to build relationships with people; there is lots of censoring to be done. I write the blog so friends and family get a sense of what I'm doing and how I'm feeling. However I mostly have to avoid writing about what I'm doing and how I'm feeling. I tried the 'hopefully they'll be able to read between the lines' approach. I think for the people who know me, it worked okay.

Coming home after living in a developing country is an intense experience. We return to our little bubble and either live comfortably within that, or it bursts, so to speak. One of the things I've found the hardest to deal with, is that people are generally don't care about and aren't interested in what I've been doing. Most ask if I enjoyed it, but they never go further than that. The answer is no. I definitely didn't enjoy it, but I had an incredible experience and learned so much. There are lots of superficial reasons I can give for not enjoying it, but overall, for me it has to be the lack of achievement. VSO prepare you for this and recommend the longer 2-year placement for precisely this reason - but it wasn't for me. You need to be very good at building relationships with people and aiming for slow steps towards change. Now it's not to say I can't build relationships, but I found it very hard to deal with that slow pace of change. I guess it depends very much on your placement and the people you are working with, but it was my experience that I wasn't particularly valued as a professional, but rather viewed as a glorified work experience person who comes with a budget attached.
I like to have some control and privacy in my life and I massively struggled to cope with the lack of both. Some volunteers develop amazing relationships with the people in their communities and fully immerse themselves in the lifestyle. I never really adjusted. Having no control over when and I what I ate was an issue for me. Food bowl laden with palm oil disagreed with me, yet it is not okay to refuse a meal and people would be offended. I found this hard. Gambian people are used to living in close proximity to each other and gain much enjoyment from sitting around with friends and family - the continual greeting and regular contact with people is to be admired. It didn't sit well with the antisocial aspect of my personality.

The idea of neo-colonialism comes up regularly amongst volunteers, both pre-departure and during placement. There are real struggles to go through deciding if the 'volunteering' route is right or not. It's very easy to argue both sides of that argument and not so easy to come to any conclusion. You can only assure yourself that what you are doing is in good faith and go from there. There are some placements that I think are incredibly valuable and the expertise of volunteers is much needed. Others, less so, but not always for the reasons that people may expect. Prior to the recent change in government, much of VSO's funding came from DFID (Department for International Development), therefore VSO's programme objectives were somewhat influenced by the donor. It is some of these bigger objectives that I fundamentally disagreed with for The Gambia. When you realise the size of the steps towards progress that are taken on the ground, you can see that some of those objectives are just too vast and unachievable in the near future. Policy makers need a better idea of the situation on the ground. It is not reasonable to expect the bigwigs to spend the time seeing the situation for themselves, there are systems and reports that give them that information. It is those systems that don't work and those reports that are not accurate. If you start to actually care about the work you are trying to do, you can't help but become embroiled in politics and I don't have the stomach for it. Everything is part of a much bigger problem and nothing is straightforward. I have vast amounts of respect for people who devote their lives to working in development, it is an uphill battle. Everyone has an opinion but very few people have any idea of the complexity of the issues involved. I learnt a lot during my placement, but that little bit of knowledge is nothing but an insight into all the things I don't know.

I have returned home frustrated at people and my relationships with them. I met some incredible people during this experience, not necessarily flawless or any more knowledgable than me, but people who are prepared to question things and are intereseted in something more than the mundane routine of everyday life. Every aspect of my life is very unsettled at the moment, and I have no real idea of what I want to do or where I want to be. What I do know, is that I'm happy with who I am and I need to be a little more selfish about things. I hate it when people underestimate me or offer unwanted advice. I try very hard not to be rude to, or hurt people; it's not necessary. However, I have spent years not saying anything when those people upset me. It puts me in mind of that phase of childhood when I wondered if everyone else in the world was there to be the supporting cast to my life. I know differently now of course, but somewhere along the way the balance has tipped too far in the other direction and I find myself supporting, way more than I'm supported. Having the time and distance to look at life is a privilege, but having the strength of mind to make necessary changes isn't that easy!

A few people have asked me what I think of VSO as an organisation. I know that many people who read these blogs are considering volunteering and I really have to take this opportunity to say a few things. VSO is an incredible organisation that tries very hard to get things right. The whole way through this experience VSO UK have been amazing. They believe in what they are trying to do, they acknowledge that it is hard and they really value their volunteers. The returned volunteers weekend was a valuable opportunity for us to compare our experiences. It would be fair to say that our opinions of the in-countryVSO Program Offices didn't always compare to our experiences with VSO UK, but you also have to appreciate that if things were perfect in-country, there wouldn't be any need for support. The situation in every country is different and organisational changes, understandably, take a few years to come to fruition. However I can not fault them for trying. We were asked for feedback at every step of the way and it is listened to and acted upon. I have never worked for an organisation that makes you feel as valued as VSO. They also give you the space to let off steam but more importantly don't judge you for it. Because the majority of VSO staff are previous volunteers, they understand what you are going through. They will talk freely with you about the difficulties, both big and small and happily admit that we don't always know what's the right thing to do. No-one was ever pious or condescending and I am not surprised that once people have volunteered they stay involved with VSO for life.
Volunteering is not easy and you can't return from your experience and have it nicely packaged into something you've done and can move on from. It is not for everyone but if it is something you want to do, then go for it. I would recommend VSO as an organisation to anyone who is interested in volunteering. Go for it, but don't expect the people around you to really understand what you go through. Accept this and expect this beforehand, then make the experience everything you want it to be.

Any views expressed are my own and are not representative of VSO.


  1. Hi Kate,
    I'm interested in talking to returned volunteers who are teachers and have returned to teaching in primary schools in England for my dissertation. If you fit that description and would be interested in helping with my research please get in touch asap:
    Thanks very much,

  2. It was a great adventure to be a an international volunteer. I, myself as one volunteer in Central Asia. I had the feeling that time is not enough for having a mission in life.

  3. Great reflections, I think anybody who wants to volunteer should really read this!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I must say that five years later the legendary rose tinted glasses are making an appearance - it's good for me to come back and read these posts again!